Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Vienna: Ich bin der Kaiser und ich wölle Knödel!

Wiener Melange. Starbucks, go fuck yourself!
Hungary has a very strange relationship with Vienna, in fact, with all of Austria. As the closest "western" neighbor of Hungary, it was the place that defined "freedom" for most late commie era Hungarians. Freedom meant consumer goods, and the border town of Nickelsdorf was crammed with discount appliance shops and currency exchange kiosks serving the Magyar cross border shopper. That all disappeared in 1990. During the early 1990s the Hungarians somehow got it into their heads that they were going to "share" the proposed 1996 Vienna World's Fair, even though neither Vienna nor the International World's Fair organization ever remembered inviting Hungary to do so. Budapest still has a few "1996 Budapest Expo" bar umbrellas around today. It is understandable, though. After 1989, everybody in Hungary thought we and Austria were going to be Best Effing Friends and doing fun things like post-Hapsburg sleepover weekends and sharing clothes and churches and money and stuff. But no. It didn't work out that way.  

Actually, I like our St. Stephans Church better. Nyah, nyah!
Only three hours and thirty Euros away by train, Budapest and Vienna (and by extension, Hungary and Austria) are now distant worlds apart. They are like two kids on the same block who never talk to each other. One kid lives in the Richie Rich mansion with servants and fancy stuff, the other lives in a shabbier, somewhat hillbilly version where Jughead sometimes crashes. Not in the same league. You notice it immediately when you step outside of Vienna's spanking new Central Train station. Everything is very different - shiny, clean, exuberantly efficient. You are now in the West. 

Musical Toilets! The West has everything you dreamed of!

You may think that the old mental division of East-West disappeared after the fall of Communism in 1989, or at least in the years that followed. No. Vienna is in the West. Budapest, although increasingly well dressed, is not a West European city.  It is merely an Eastern European city without donkey carts in the streets. (It has been nearly twenty years since I saw a donkey cart delivering firewood in Budapest, alas.) While Vienna, in fact, has loads of horse carts in its streets - fiaker, especially during Opera season - these are very Western horsies driven by people dressed as the Monopoly Man. 

Der Pooper Scoopser is visable under the horse's tail.
The fact that the two cities shared a lot of architects a century ago means nothing beyond window fixings and doorways. Budapest used to have a lot in common with Vienna - cafes, effete antisemitism, operetta, a surfeit of psychoanalysts. No longer. Walking along Fumie asked me why Vienna could have such a prosperous downtown and not Pest... basically, if you see a nice shop in Vienna, that means it is doing decent business and paying its taxes. Yay, Capitalism! If you see the same in Budapest you have to figure out which sub-mayor and city council member is taking how much of a kickback on each individual business, right down to the roast chestnut vendors and organized Romanian gypsy beggar squads. This explains why the worst insult one can hurl at a Hungarian is to label anything here as "Balkan." In the Balkans corruption is widespread, but it always has a realistic price tag. In Hungary corruption has become overt government policy and the sky is is the limit. Yay, Capitalism!

My digs in 1965. Notice the flags. Hol a Magyar? Hol a Magyar!
Thus: not The West. And, unfortunately, not the Balkans, either. I remember my first visit to Vienna in 1965. I was a kid, and after visiting my Mom's family in Hungary we stayed a few days in Vienna at the Bristol Hotel, which is right downtown across from the Opera. After three months in Hungary we were elated to walk around without being followed by State security agents and there were no tanks in the streets. It was a Radio Free Europe TV advertisement come true. Also, it was clean: none of the bomb damage that was still widespread in Budapest from WWII and 1956 was to be seen in Austria (it pays to surrender without a fight!) and the City had come a long way from the days of the Allied occupation.

The Rathaus. Transformed into a skating rink. 
Of course, there is only so much cleanliness and good service that one can bear. Now we visit Vienna to see what could never have been. It is what Budapest would look like if only Budapest's City Fathers did not require bribes for every minor cash transaction. And we came to eat schnitzel! Although in fact the reason for visiting was that Fumie had a bit of work to do in the Austrian capital and we spent a few days wandering the chilly streets. 

Kiaserschmarren: smearing the Kaiser with sugar and syrup.
Winter doesn't mean less tourists in Vienna, just colder ones. But who can complain when the February carnival season comes along. As a Catholic nation Austria does carnival in style - by setting up a huge open air skating rink in front of the Rathaus, the City Council. In rural Austria they still do dress up costume carnival, usually in cast off Lady Gaga costumes, and last year we enjoyed carnival in Ptui, Slovenia, the northern limit of the Balkan kukeri tradition. But here the city council decided to shell out for some ice, not just a little patch of ice, but a vast, parking lot sized wrap-around skating rink. The idea is to have fun and eat lots of good stuff before the fast of Lent. The Austrians are Catholics and kind of serious about this. No fun for the next 40 days...

The Vienna Ice Dream. 
And if you are doing carnival, you got to eat, especially donuts. Austrians eat a lot of donuts at this time of year - and also various high carb stuff like - noodles and kaiserschammren, or "Kaiser's Mess" - hot cinamon sugar bread. Looked great, but I didn't dare eat it. Jelly donuts - krapfen - were on sale on virtually every flat surface in the entire city of Vienna, filled with traditional chocolate, jelly, or cream, or even weird vegan reiki green tea-flavored versions at the bio-cafes that cater to the healthy crowd. 

Mmmm.... krapfen!
But having eaten no carbs for months by this time it was time for my birthday treat: Wurst and sandwiches! These were just OK - eat them and you are not hungry anymore, but I have a soft spot in my heartburn for the classic Viennese Leberkäse sandwich. 

Mega-chunky hunk of steamed baloney, get in mah mouth!
Leberkäse is a sort of baloney meatloaf that is steamed and sliced into sandwiches, a sort of Teutonic street meat that predates the Turkish doner sandwich. it is the perfect food for four year olds: soft, bland, warm, and leaves no solid memory in your brain of having eaten anything at all. Which brings me to the most glorious expression of Hapsburg mediocrity of all! Wiener Schnitzel

Flat. Boring, Good. 
Now, we eat a lot of schnitzel in Hungary. In fact, it is the meal my band guys order most often while touring in Hungary or even abroad. We call it by its rural Hungarian name: lapos hus. Flat meat. But in Vienna it is more than just flat meat - it is a celebration of Viennese culinary self-identification that takes its inspiration from the Hapsburgs, a dynasty of underachievers and pervs whose taste was as colorless as their wits were dull. Kaiser Ferdinand was one such developmentally challenged ruler of the early 19th century: his only recorded coherent command was one winter when he told his staff that he desired plum dumplings, which were not in season. His response is preserved in history: "Ich bin der Kaiser, und ich wölle knödel!" ('I am the Kaiser, and I want dumplings!') 

You can help Emperor Ferdinand... or you can turn the page...

Ferdie's successor, the Emperor Franz Joseph, obviously didn't spend much time on oral hygiene: his teeth were so rotten he had to have his meat and vegetables carefully overcooked so that he wouldn't have to chew. The result, a splodge of boiled beef, root vegetables, and stock called tafelspitz is loyally on offer at nearly every restaurant in Vienna today, even though the modern Viennese can boast excellent dental care. But the Schnitzel... it shines. Nothing more than a slab of meat  with the shit pounded out of it, breaded and fried, vainly aspiring to the mediocrity that is the unique quality of nearly every Hapsburg achievement, and yet... it is good. It is a nice piece of fried meat. So bland, so nondescript, yet so satisfying.  

Oom Pah Pah Mani Hum!
For our schnitzel pilgrimage we went to the near legendary Zum Figlmuller,  around the corner from the Stefansplatz smack in the heart of downtown tourist Vienna, for our schnitzel. Figlmuller is famous for its schnitzel, although the house specialty is made from a pork cutlet instead of the traditional veal. Toss in an extra few
Euros and you can get the veal version, and I had wanted to try the "suurschnitzel" - a pickled meat version, but at the last minute decided to go with the specialty of the house.  

As thin as a sheet of cardboard, and just as tasty.
What can I say? It was a flattened ply of pork and thin breading that overlapped the plate, served with an excellent potato salad drenched in the classic Austrian black pumpkin oil that looks like a Jeep crankcase dripped on your salad. If they had served it with with a side of pencils and ski-lift tickets the meal would have represented the sum total of everything produced by the Austrian economy. After dinner we were strolling around before heading back to our hotel, and we passed the Opera house on the evening of the grand Vienna Opera Ball. 

They wish they were a baller, wish they were a little bit taller,..

This is the social event of the season, in which the hoi polloi and all of the upper crust of Austria gather to strut in top hat and tails and drink champagne and schnapps and then waltz the night away as if it were still the Good Old Days of the  Hapsburg Empire and nobody had granted any civil rights to stinky Slavs and Vlachs yet. Bankers and civil servants and reality TV show stars spend the day dressing up like Metternich and  giving interviews to the Austrian TV stations and hoping that the local Anarchists won't be tossing stink bombs at them as they arrive at the Opera House for their evening of Smug 'n' Smarmy waltzing and hand kissing. Personally? Give me the East. On the other hand, to be fair, the train station does offer free wifi to refugees. As I said, we are in the West now.